Governor should grant amnesty for War-on-Drugs pot casualties
Marijuana madness may be over, but thousands of Coloradans are still paying the price for their “crime” of possessing relatively small quantities of weed.
As the War on Drugs fizzles and recreational marijuana hits the market, Coloradans should find it troubling that so many of our young people have had their lives ruined for an activity now legal in the state. They did break the law, but, particularly in retrospect, we should ask: Did the punishment fit the crime?
Statistics compiled for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project in New York City say it does not. The research was conducted by Henry G. Lavine, professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York; Loren Siegel, attorney and media and communications consultant; and Jon B. Gettman, professor of Criminal Justice at Winchester College in Virginia.
Lavine and Siegel are the directors of the research project, which studies “race, police policy and the growing number of arrests for marijuana possession and other petty offenses.” The data for this study came from federal records, mainly those of the FBI and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Thanks to draconian mandatory sentencing laws imposed by Congress, judges in thousands of cases were allowed little or no discretion in the cruel sentences handed down to small-time offenders caught in the War on Drugs.
Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking to the American Bar Association in San Francisco last August, criticized the federal sentencing guidelines as being both “ineffective and unsustainable.”
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long for no truly good law enforcement reasons,” he said. Later in his speech, he added, “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer country.”
In order for minor drug offenders to evade federal sentencing guidelines, Holder said, “The Department of Justice will now instruct prosecutors to side-step federal sentencing rules by not recording the amount of drugs found on non-violent dealers not associated with larger gangs or cartels.”
It is unfortunate that this humane policy was not in effect at the state level over the past 25 years, when arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana in Colorado rose from 4,000 in 1986 to 10,500 per year. Over the decade from 2001 to 2010, Colorado counties and municipalities arrested 108,000 offenders for marijuana possession.
Until the people of Colorado changed the law to make recreational marijuana legal, possession of it, even in small quantities, was a Class 2 petty offense. Although these are the least-serious criminal charges, they do require court appearances and can result in fines, community service or possibly a short jail term.
In many cases, the most punishing aspect of a marijuana possession conviction comes after the legal ritual of crime and punishment. Although a minor charge, a Class 2 petty offense nevertheless leave the offender with a criminal record.
As the Marijuana Arrest Project reports, “These arrests diminish the life chances of the mostly young Coloradans who are caught with small amounts of marijuana, there is no evidence that the arrests diminish the overall crime rate or marijuana use rates. There are no studies showing that arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana reduce serious or violent crimes. And marijuana use rates in Colorado have remained relatively stable in recent years, despite the increase in possession arrests.”
Article IV, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution gives the governor the “power to grant ... pardons after conviction for all offenses except treason.”
“A general amnesty for incarcerated non-violent drug offenders would open the way to a new approach based on truth and reconciliation principles and restorative justice methods, instead of retribution and punishment,” wrote Ernest Drucker of Columbia University and former United Kingdom drug czar Mike Trace in a widely circulated article.
The governor cannot erase the harm done by unjust, and unjustly administered, criminal sanctions for minor marijuana offenders, but he could mitigate the effects on lives going forward by commuting the sentences of those still serving sentences and pardoning those who have completed their sentences and returned to life outside the prison walls.